When Spider-Man hit theaters in the spring of 2002, I thought it had distilled the perfect formula for cinema superheroics, a careful blend of in-costume action and out-of-costume drama, seasoned with a dash of unrequited adolescent longing and liberal portions of Tobey Maguire's insistent adorability. There was no reason to doubt that the recipe would work equally well in a sequel.
Clearly, the filmmakers also felt they had found a replicable formula; they just took the idea a little more literally. Like the first film, Spider-Man 2 features as its villain a scientist who a) works for the company Oscorp; b) acts as a father figure to Spidey's alter ego Peter Parker; c) has an experiment go badly awry, giving himself superpowers but also making him crazy; d) endures a schizophrenic struggle between his good and evil selves before succumbing to the latter; and e) takes hostage Peter's longtime crush Mary Jane in order to get to Spider-Man. Indeed, repetitions are everywhere in the film: another rescue of public-transit passengers plummeting toward death; another inspirational speech by an elderly relative; another comically bad street musician singing about Spider-Man; another scene in which costar Kirsten Dunst's top is soaked to reveal her as conspicuously under-undergarmented. For all the critical raves it received, Spider-Man 2 is, in the end, more remake than sequel.
This is not a new trick for director Sam Raimi, whose second film, Evil Dead 2, was essentially a retelling of his first. But whereas in that case it was an act of moxie--re-envisioning the terrifying original as a horror-comedy--this time around it looks like a failure of nerve. The first Spider-Man unexpectedly raked in over $400 million in domestic box office, and that bonanza weighs heavily on the sequel. It can't be easy making a movie for which anything less than $350 million in ticket sales will be considered a failure. And while Spider-Man 2 has managed to clear that hurdle, it did so by hewing programmatically to the blueprint of its predecessor. The first film felt inspired; this one feels packaged.
The story this time revolves around one Dr. Otto Octavius, a brilliant and kindly nuclear scientist who takes an avuncular interest in Peter. Unfortunately, when he unveils to the public his method for creating a sustainable fusion reaction, it turns out not to be so sustainable after all. In addition to undermining his next grant application, the resulting nuclear accident kills his beloved wife and causes his mind to be taken over by four intelligent mechanical arms he had created to manage the experiment. (In addition to being one of the world's foremost physicists, he is also apparently on the cutting edge of artificial intelligence research, "specialization" being a concept that does not pertain in comic-book land.) After awaking in the hospital to find his life in ruins and his appendages doubled, he does what anyone would do under the circumstances: crawl around town on his snaky metal arms, rob the odd bank, fix up a secret lair, and fight Spider-Man at every available opportunity.
As if Spidey didn't have enough on his plate already. Not only does he wear a costume that "rides up a bit in the crotch," as he politely explains to a stranger in an elevator, he's having trouble juggling work and home life. Superheroing, it turns out, has long and unpredictable hours, and the pay sucks. Peter's attempt to line his pockets in the lucrative field of pizza delivery, meanwhile, is continually interrupted by armed robberies and children playing in traffic. Worse, so are his efforts to acquire a college education and to woo Mary Jane: On his way to see her perform in a Broadway play, he doesn't merely witness a crime, he's literally run over by it. (Peter's knack for attracting trouble raises the interesting but unexplored question of whether he could rid New York City of crime simply by moving somewhere else--Hoboken?--and bringing it with him.) Rebuked by Mary Jane for missing the play, Peter has a take-this-job-and-shove-it epiphany, hanging up his mask and tights so that he can treat himself to the finer things life has to offer, like physics class. But never fear: He reverses the decision in plenty of time to set the stage for Spider-Man 3.
Unlike the first movie, which unfolded more or less organically, Spider-Man 2 consistently feels schematic. One reason is dialogue that almost never rings true to life. In some cases, the flat writing is intended to grease the movie's narrative mechanics. Virtually every line spoken to or by Peter's best friend Harry, for instance, includes the words "father" or "Spider-Man" (sometimes both) to make sure no one forgets that the former (last movie's scientist-turned-crazy-villain) died in the course of a dispute with the latter, and Harry is still very unhappy about it. Similarly, when a reporter asks Octavius, "If the artificial intelligence in the arms is as advanced as you suggest, couldn't that make you vulnerable to them?" one half expects him to respond, "Funny you should ask. That's exactly what's going to happen in five minutes."
More often, however, the stilted dialogue is intended to convey moral gravity. Characters don't talk, they declaim. The "With great power comes great responsibility" speech uttered by Uncle Ben in the first movie has spread like kudzu throughout the second one: Now, everyone is speaking Homily. Octavius explains, "Intelligence is not a privilege, it's a gift. You use it for the good of mankind." Mary Jane offers, "It's wrong that we should be only half alive ... half of ourselves." The doctor that Peter goes to when he's feeling less than super tells him, "It's gotta make you mad not to know who you are. Your soul disappears. There's nothing as bad as uncertainty." Not one but two dead characters, Uncle Ben and Harry's father, reappear to lecture their boys on the paths of good and evil, respectively. And then there's Aunt May, who gets this movie's Big Speech: "Everybody loves a hero. People line up for them, cheer them, scream their names. And years later, they'll tell how they stood in the rain for hours just to get a glimpse of the one who taught them how to hold on a second longer. I believe there's a hero in all of us." This is not how people talk in real life--or, for that matter, in comics (you can't fit that many words in the speech-bubble, for starters); it's how they talk in plays, and not good ones.
The cast delivering these lines is also a bit uneven. Maguire is excellent in the title role, again finding a precise balance between courageous resolve and adolescent insecurity. It's hard to think of any actor who could better embody the idea of the "hero in all of us," and this awkward charisma carries the film over numerous rough patches. (Though one has to wonder what will happen to his career if his voice ever changes.) Alfred Molina is less well cast as Dr. Octopus. He never really pulls off the Smeagol-Gollum bickering of good and evil selves, in large part because he never really seems crazy. (This was not, needless to say, a problem for Willem Dafoe in the first movie.) Besides, playing archetypical Good and Evil isn't really Molina's bag. He's better in roles that have a bombastic sleaziness to them, like his Rahad Jackson in Boogie Nights and Jeremy Burtom in The Imposters. Molina might have been able to show this side had the filmmakers included the quasi-seduction by Doc Ock of Aunt May that took place in the original comics. But they didn't. (It's a shame, too. While finessing the age difference might have been tricky, that storyline would have offered an opportunity for new tensions between Peter's personal life and his superhero one, perhaps obviating the need to keep repeating all the old ones.)